Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace laureate and President of Israel, was just 23 years old when he became a trusted aid to his country's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
He's not sure why Ben-Gurion put so much faith in someone so young. "Maybe he was wrong, maybe it was a mistake," Peres tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
Ben-Gurion defended his choice, saying "When Shimon enters the room, I know three things: A, he will not ask anything for himself, secondly, that he will not smear anybody else, and thirdly, he has apparently a new idea."
In Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, Peres returns the admiration. The book collects two years' worth of conversations between Peres and writer David Landau about Israel's founding father.
Ben-Gurion was committed from the start to creating an Israeli state, Peres says, but he was willing to compromise to reach his goal. One of the most critical decisions Ben-Gurion made was his acceptance of partition and the concept of two states. Many people were unhappy with the division of the land.
The map was terrible," Peres reflects. "It's not like today, when you say, 'Two states for two peoples.' The '67 map is different from the '47 map. In the '47 map we had 22 percent less [land] than now."
But Ben-Gurion stood strong when people accused him of dividing the land and settling for too little. "I think to create a state is the most important and urgent story," he told them.
And it was an urgent time. Jewish refugees were searching desperately for a safe place to live after the horror of the Holocaust.
"He was a leader of the people that were dispersed," Peres says. "He was heading a war without an army. Look around. There are not many people like him."
A Man Of His Word
Ben-Gurion could be prickly with people he cared about, but Peres says he was always honest. "He was a man of his word. If he said something, you can hang on it with blind eyes, you don't have to worry."
The one thing Ben-Gurion couldn't stand, was dishonesty. "With Ben-Gurion, if you lie once, it's the end of your career," Peres says.
Taking risks, however, was a different story. "If you dare and if you fail, that is okay. Daring is permitted; lying is not accepted," Peres says.
When Ben-Gurion was alive, he talked about Israel being a "light unto nations." Today, his country faces increasing diplomatic isolation.
"We are being criticized politically, I know, and I hope we shall achieve peace with the Palestinians," Peres says. "But look at the achievement ... we are the only democracy in the Middle East. It is very hard to be a democracy in an undemocratic region."
Peres also takes pride in the agricultural and economic success of Israel, turning a piece of land that 70 years ago was mostly desert into an agricultural powerhouse. "From that side, you may see it a little bit different," he says.
If Ben-Gurion were around today, Peres says, he would probably hope to see his country move forward in two directions: "to be as old and as small as the 10 commandments, and to be as daring and modern as the science of today."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Our book today is the story of a legendary leader told by his protege, who is something of a legend in his own right. The book is called "Ben-Gurion: A Political Life." It's a memoir of Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion. And the co-author is Shimon Peres, the Nobel peace laureate and current president of Israel.
Peres was just 23 years old when he became a trusted advisor to Ben-Gurion. Over a two-year period, Peres sat down with writer David Landau to talk about his mentor. Shimon Peres also sat down with us this past week to talk about the book, and I asked him why he thinks Ben-Gurion chose him.
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: I really don't know. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was a mistake. He was very much criticized because he picked me up. They say, who is this young man coming from nowhere, practically uneducated from a kibbutz and so on? But then Ben-Gurion told them, some of them, when Shimon enters the room, I know three things. A, he will not ask anything for himself, secondly, that he will not smear anybody else, and thirdly, he has apparently a new idea.
RAZ: You say that the most critical decision he made was his acceptance of partition...
RAZ: ...of course, the concept of two states. For many people looking back today, it doesn't seem particularly brave, but can you explain the context of why you believe that was such a crucial decision?
PERES: Two reasons: Some of them wanted the wholeness of Israel, what they called the Greater Israel. They thought this was more important than to have a state. The second reason is the map was terrible. Most of the land was given to the Palestinians. It's not like today when you say two states or two peoples. The '67 map is different from the '47 map.
In the '47 map, we have had 22 percent less than now. So, say, what are you doing? You divide the land and you are satisfied with a map which is impossible to live on. And Ben-Gurion said: Yes. In spite of it, I think the greater state is the most important and urgent story. It was immediately after the Holocaust and to our great disappointment, the ones who were saved from the Holocaust couldn't find a land to be there. All the ports were closed. So he says, let's have a state, even on a small land, but we can absorb the ones that were saved from the Holocaust.
RAZ: Mm. I want to ask you about Ben-Gurion personally, because you acknowledge that he could be prickly. He could be even mean to people who he loved, like his wife, even you, at times, right?
PERES: Well, first of all, he was a man of his words. If he said something, you can hang on it with blind eyes. You don't have to worry. And he will do it under the most difficult circumstances. So you know where you stand. Since I worked with him, I knew exactly what I can permit myself and what is unforgivable.
With Ben-Gurion, if you lie once, it's the end of your career. But if you dare and even you fail, that's okay. Daring is permitted. Lying is not accepted. I mean, for me, it was great luck to meet such a great person, unique in history because he was the prime minister of a country that he wasn't born. He was the leader of the people that were dispersed, not in the land. He was the head of the - he was heading a war without an army. Look around. There are not many people like him.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Shimon Peres, the Nobel laureate and president of Israel, about his new book. It's called "Ben-Gurion." There was a narrative at the time before the state was created that Palestine was this empty land simply waiting to be populated. You remember that Ben-Gurion warned against pushing this idea; that in fact, he said, look, there are people living here, and we need to understand that.
PERES: Sure. Well, Ben-Gurion wrote several books. One of them is called "We And Our Neighbors." And he says the idea that we are coming to an empty land is not a true idea. The idea of the Zionists in the beginning, it was idealistic to say a people without a state is looking for a state without a people. Well, that was that whole situation.
There were Palestinians. By the way, the Palestinians never have had a state, you see? But anyway, Ben-Gurion says we have to understand there are Arabs or Palestinians and we have to develop with them fair relations on a democratic basis.
RAZ: Shimon Peres, Israel today seems to be increasingly isolated diplomatically. And in Ben-Gurion's day, he talked about Israel being a light unto nations. I wonder what you think Ben-Gurion would make of Israel's position in the world today. Would he be disappointed? Would he be surprised?
PERES: Well, Israel is isolated in one way but also admired in another way, you know? We are the only democracy in the Middle East. It's very hard to be a democracy in an undemocratic region. And also, when you look at the achievement over 63 years fighting seven wars, two intifadas, coming to a land that - the size of its land is so small, my God, without water. You know, we have two lakes. One is dead, the other is dying, and yet to be one of the best agriculture in the world. So, look, from that side, you may see it a little bit different. We are being criticized politically, I know, and I hope we shall achieve peace with the Palestinians. So I think this criticism, too, will go down. But look at the achievement. Even when there was a lot of darkness, a single candle can be a light.
RAZ: What do you think he would have made of Prime Minister Netanyahu?
PERES: Well, I don't want to speculate about it. I want to tell you one thing. Ben-Gurion told me time and again don't judge people upon the stories around them, upon the rumors. He told me, take the record and judge.
RAZ: If Ben-Gurion were still alive today, what do you think would keep him up at night about Israel?
PERES: He would like that this country would be moved into two directions, to be as old and as small as the 10 Commandments, and to be as daring and modern as the science of today.
RAZ: Shimon Peres, one question for you. Now, you are one year older than when Ben-Gurion died. You are very vibrant. You're engaged. You're obviously the president of the country. What is your - what's your secret? What's your exercise regimen, by the way?
PERES: Well, two, you know. First of all, never lose your curiosity. If you lose it, you're dead. Never fall into boredom. And I'm thanking heaven for this great occasion to be a servant of the people. From Ben-Gurion, I learned what does it mean to be a leader. When it comes to success, then it's we. When it comes to a failure, it's I. A leader shouldn't try to be on the top. He should try to be ahead, not to rule, but to advance.
RAZ: That's Israeli president and Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres. He is the co-author of a new book on the life of his political mentor. It's called "Ben-Gurion." President Peres, thank you so much.
PERES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.